Tuesday, March 04, 2008

In Defence of the Public

In response to my post below, Nightdreamer points to the hypocrisy of those who were at the Makati rally. They were chanting "change, change, change" as they leave garbage on the streets. In my comment section he recounts an instance where a bus driver railed against the lack of discipline on the roads and in the same breath ran a red light.

Arbet, clearly not apolitical, says change begins with ourselves, in our private capacities. He outlines five simple steps on how we can exact change. He says to "translate this inward change outwards." This reminds me of a book that came out a while back, something about how to show your love for the Philippines by buying local goods, paying taxes etc. etc.

But our personal choices, our private choices, especially the ones about following "rules" - traffic rules being the most simple example, are not enough. We need to have trust that the "system" of enforcing the rules will apply to all of us, regardless of who we are. This trust is in public institutions working for the public interest.

On our roads, the most public of social spaces, it is clearly a state of nature, there is a sense that it is every man for himself. Eat or be eaten. We even have a local word for it - gulangan system. On the roads of Manila, gulangan reigns supreme. The only thing preventing roads from descending into chaos is a system of rules that works in the public interest. On a four-way stop for example (interestingly I have not seen one in the Philippines), the first car that gets to the intersection gets to cross first. Knowing this, other drivers will respect the rule, first because he will get a ticket if he doesn't and second because he has respect for the other drivers - that they are, at least on the roads, his equal. That he is not above them, above the rules.

While privately I know I am a good person, and privately I am all for social justice and fairness and equality. Privately I am rooting for every man and woman because I am a democrat. I have been a motorist for over ten years. While the times I have been caught violating traffic rules can be counted on one hand, I have had more than my share of road indiscretions. Privately I grimace, I want to do my duty as a good citizen and part of the community, but there is this sense that the public simply will not let me. On the roads of Manila, eat or be eaten - there is nothing mediating between your murderous road rage and that of the driver next to you. Nothing. Not a system of rules and certainly not the traffic enforcer supposedly embodying the rules.

Privately we are good people and privately we exercise our own version of what is moral. But publicly we become beasts, predators of the worst kind. Eat or be eaten. Haven't you heard countless people marvel at how Filipinos excel and become successful when transplanted abroad?

Clearly there is nothing wrong with the Filipino. What is wrong is this nebulous, amorphous "system." I hadn't thought of it before, and previously it had no name. The system is our public life - how we behave in public spaces. What I meant by "civilising" Philipping politics is the creation of civility in our society - the lack of this feeling that we need to eat or be eaten. That we can let go of our guard and live relatively safe lives in public because we have trust that public institutions will work for (more or less) the majority. Isn't this what we mean by justice?

Now magnify the example of the road to the rest of the country. The Philippines - that one big public space of 85 million private interests - mediated by what? Mediated by whom? What do we do when the institutions which supposedly enforce rules to (more or less) mete justice and fairness are manned by the Biggest Predators of all?

Private changes are not enough. Private choices are not enough. Unless we go and live separately on imaginary islands.


Jon Limjap said...

And so you subscribe by "Bayan muna bago sarili", wherein "Bayan muna dapat ang magbago, bago ako magbago?"

Ganon lang ba yun kasimple?

Seriously, that the system is that way is not just a random coincidence. The system is made up of people. We are parts of the very system we loathe. We are parts of the very system we want to change.

So to divide the change into "public" and "private" will be hypocritical. If you only changed and improved yourself privately, no, you didn't change. If your change is not public enough to affect people immediately around you then your private change is meaningless. You have to share it, even if it means telling people off in public.

Arbet said...

Agree, it can be summed up by this quote: if other can do it, why can't I? Kidding.

There is no incentive to do good publicly. I have a post about this http://awbholdings.com/blog/?p=161

Sa tagalog, bakit ka magpapakabuti kung yung iba eh hindi?

It gets cyclical from there, that is why translating an inward change outwards is the way to go. And honest-to-God law enforcement, of course. =P

Our institutions are broken, but some people are still giving them the chance to work. I dunno.


At Subic, the four-way stop rule works (at least when I was there in 2003). It is a good sign.

mschumey07 said...

You hit the nail on the head. There are times when you turn into something you are not in the name of survival. When institutions are bastardized, rule of law and civility does not exist. That is the reality we all are facing now. The best way is as Arbet tries to put it. Do what is expected of you and adhere to your principles.

Change should emanate from us, then maybe we can influence the others to do so.

sparks said...


I haven't heard of this tagline and my post suggests nothing of the kind. When you say "bayan" its not the same as "public institutions." I do not think my post makes anything simple. If anything, it complicates the matter even more.

Public institutions - the bureaucracy and its bureaucrats. Public institutions - the police, public servants. People you work 30% more to pay. People/rules/institutions that are supposed to act/mediate on your behalf and mine without causing injury to either one of us.

I am not saying that the choices we make privately do not count. I am saying it is not enough to make "change." I recount my own experiences on the road. I want to be a good person, I want to follow the rules, but the system constrains my behaviour. The system dictates that I look out for my own because other people won't. And I cannot trust public institutions to look out for me or to mediate between my interests and others. This is what constitutes our public lives. It isn't fair.


Oh yeah, that's right. But I haven't been in Subic for ages. I remember my father was oh so careful to follow the rules - because he knew the police meant business and he didn't want to go all the way to Subic to reclaim his DL.

nightdreamer said...

Wow. I blushed crimson when I read my moniker on the post. I always become a tomato whenever my blog is mentioned. I don't know why. But I have to stop making the comment box my private (it's the word of the day, isn't it? :D) soapbox, so...

Also, apologies in advance if this isn't very well-structured. I'm not good at making my comments very logical and chronological. Sorry.

About traffic, you raised some good points about enforcements and I generally agree that public institutions are just as accountable in our society's failings as we are. But, that mentality is a bit pernicious to some who are not quite as wise in reflecting what that implies and at the same time are not interested in making changes - inward and outward - happen. And by that I mean from the demographic that blames everyone else but themselves.

I can imagine this scenario:

"I'm beating the red light! Bakit? Gago kasi silang mga public institutions eh! Yeah, raowrr!" Now picture thousands of jeepneys behaving like that. I don't think it's that hard to imagine seeing how true it could already be.

Would there be any road rages if everyone behaves? I doubt it. Our road becoming a battlefield is a chain-reaction thing.

I'm also unsure of if any traffic rules are dubious. Perhaps the blame falls more in police's negligence, and their turning blind eyes on violators who bribe them in private (but then again, what country has decent polices?). And, how about those drivers who cannot even be good in private? Many believe their the king of roads - the upper class ones because they have these expensive cars (that they didn't buy) and the lower class ones because their car is cheap and isn't theirs anyway.

I'm, of course, more pessimistic than most, because I think us becoming "bad" is the result of our intolerance to those who oppress us. Oppressors not merely being politicians, but those with the apathetic "to-hell-with-all" attitude. or on extremes, the nihilists. One bitter truth is that the system is more forgiving of nihilists than they are of common people, thus we have traffic regulations where the only those who are caught are those without influence or those without a yellow license plate (in most cases at least).

Though your defense is sound, I think most pinoys are improperly educated with the belief that we should compromise decency for survival. I could understand if the direness of the survival is on the scale of a nationwide/ethnical massacre, but this is just driving.

How about littering? Litterbugs have the mentality that "metro aide will clean them up anyway eh" but how are we to expect metro aides to wipe wastes of such enormity? Is it not our responsibility to dispose our wastes on proper places? Why are we waiting for "garbage disposal system" to right itself before we right ourselves? Some countries - Taiwan, for one - does not have strict policies on waste disposal, yet most people there know how to dump their trash.

Not to sound cynical, but how can we be sure that this private goodness that most pinoys show on other shores isn't just fabricated, that they're just doing it so they don't get deported back to the Phils? How can we know that they're just meek because foreigners suffer worse consequences when penalized by international law, and that deep inside they just don't give a flying cowpat about propriety?

And is "Filipinos abroad behave well" a validation that there's nothing wrong with us? I think that fails to take into account the people from the ghetto because after all THEY cannot afford to go abroad. Now if by circumstances a ghetto filipino goes abroad, would s/he behave?

I'm not saying this to be anti-Filipino, which is a group I mostly identify with (even if papers say I'm Taiwanese, which I don't identify with as much). I'm not trying to be a racist here either. All I'm saying is, maybe there's something wrong with what most Filipinos believe in.

Personally I think we're not being taught enough about propriety, public or private. I blame education, and McDonald's, and maybe Gloria na rin coz it's so vogue to blame her for everything. ^_^

Thanks for taking my comment into consideration though. Not every bloggers bother to reply whenever I drop some inane words.

And I am still charmed at Melora's artwork.

nightdreamer said...

Also, to add just one sentence (PRAMIS! PARA DI NA MAHABA!)

I don't think garbage is left on the streets in the name of survival so much that it is in the name of laziness.

Jon Limjap said...

"Public institutions - the bureaucracy and its bureaucrats. Public institutions - the police, public servants. People you work 30% more to pay. People/rules/institutions that are supposed to act/mediate on your behalf and mine without causing injury to either one of us."

But again, where do the police and the public servants come from?

They are still ordinary people. The individual decisions that they make (whether to be corrupt or not, for instance) still make up the collective decision of the institution that they represent.

If no change is instigated in the individual, no change will be instigated in the institution. And even if you wanted change to be instigated in the institution, where do you start? Its leaders? Who will in turn "inspire" their followers?

Haven't we tried that ever since?

Kabayan said...

Hi sparks,

Cvj just mentioned this article to me and we might have independently arrived in certain similarities and intermeshing in our thoughts regarding our society. Check out my 3 part Blogpost at bayanikabayan.blogspot.com/ titled Amid the Flags and Banners, For Whom do We Fight For (Part 1), and For Whom do We Fight For (Conclusion).

sparks said...

But again, where do the police and the public servants come from? They are still ordinary people.

This is probably where I need to make the difference clearer between what I mean by "private" and "public." A public servant is not an ordinary person. Just as the President and all whom we trust to man our public institutions are not ordinary persons. We are private individuals - we only care about ourselves. They are public servants - they should care about the "public." All their actions should be for the "public."

Because they are people who are given the power to kill us and tax us (and nobody else - unless they're criminals, i.e. those whom our legal system deem cannot kill or tax anybody else), they are vested with something you and I don't share. This is something we, civil society, need to realise.

If I were to join the bureaucracy and see that everyone else operates on the "open drawer policy", but I would like to make a change and be a good civil servant, I would be constrained to join everyone else or quit.

Let's say by some miracle we get rid of all corruption in one government unit, this would mean this unit would be constrained by all other bodies to tow the line. If an MMDA officer sees on the news that her commander in chief, the top public servant in the land is besieged by gargantuan corruption allegations, what's her incentive to not do the same? (albeit by a smaller degree)?

If by some miracle, ALL our public servants were to have a collective change of heart at the same time, then that would be enough. But that's not going to happen - we, the public - need to force them.

Why is the ZTE deal so contemptible? Because the President, the person whom we entrusted to use the power to tax/kill supposedly in the interest of 85 million people, is using it to kill some of us (journalists, students, etc.) and make us work 30% harder and pay taxes (supposedly for the public's benefit - i.e. better roads for everyone to use) to fill her and her families private coffers.

They have this saying in Africa, where there is very little opportunity for the majority to make a decent living, "You want to get rich? Join government."

Now if we were Brunei, and we never have to pay taxes, I personally wouldn't care what the hell public servants do.

Jon Limjap said...

Hmm, so that means that we'll all just whither and die in hopelessness then. Let's migrate abroad. It's better there. The Philippines is hopeless, and will just go to waste.

nightdreamer said...

^ Yes, agree. Actually, Tao Te Ching teaches such, indirectly. "When the center does not hold, things fall apart". Public servants, governments, they are a nation's center.

On a slightly related note, though, some people from the government was just like us, private individuals, before becoming public servants. Now isn't it possible that us as private individuals have, in the first place, failings that get carried over once one of us become for the public?

Sure, it's our right - and maybe we can say it is our calling - to protest in the face of corruption, but maybe we need to introspect too. It's like arbet says, that translating inward changes to outwards is the way to go.

sparks said...

No, we shouldn't whither and die. All I'm saying is, the problem cannot be solved by simply doing our part as private citizens - being good people, buying local goods, paying taxes, trusting in "the process" and "rule of law." Comforting things.

Now that I've been away for a while, I've only realised this. That isn't enough. Again we have to ask ourselves the question - what do we do?

nightdreamer said...

Ah, I was concurring with you, Sparks, and not jon limjap. His comment didn't show when I wrote my previous comment.

Jon Limjap said...


Ah, but perhaps, that's what blogs are here for.

So that we can talk about it. Figure it out.

It will take time. A lot of time.

We shall see. :)

Urbano dela Cruz said...

"how we behave in public spaces."

What was it that Churchill said? "We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us."

We so totally overlook the role our civic spaces in fostering our civic spirits. The built environment encourages our civility (or permits our lack of civility).

We're so hung up with the software (people, publics) that we forget they have to exist in the hardware.

Jaime Lerner calls it "urban accupuncture"